Chronicles of America 

The Iron Governor

Notwithstanding the narrow views of his superiors at Versailles, Frontenac was convinced that the colony could best secure its own defense by controlling the chief line of water communications between the Iroquois country and Montreal. To this end he prepared to build a fort at Cataraqui where the St. Lawrence debouches from Lake Ontario. He was not, however, the first to recognize the strategic value of this point. Talon had marked it as a place of importance some years before, and the English, authorities at Albany had been urged by the Iroquois chiefs to forestall any attempt that the French might make by being first on the ground. But the English procrastinated, and in the summer of 1673 the governor, with an imposing array of troops and militia, made his way to Cataraqui, having first summoned the Iroquois to meet him there in solemn council. In rather high dudgeon they came, ready to make trouble if the chance arose; but Frontenac's display of armed strength, his free-handed bestowal of presents, his tactful handling of the chiefs, and his effective oratory at the conclave soon assured him the upper hand. The fort was built, and the Iroquois, while they continued to regard it as an invasion of their territories, were forced to accept the new situation with reluctant grace.

This stroke at Cataraqui inflamed the governor's interest in western affairs. During his conferences with the Indians he had heard much about the great waters to the West and the rich beaver lands which lay beyond. He was ready, therefore, to encourage in every way the plans of those who wished to undertake journeys of exploration and trade into these regions, even although he was well aware that such enterprises would win little commendation from his superiors at the royal court. Voyageurs ready to undertake these tasks there were in plenty, and all of them found in the Iron Governor a stalwart friend. Foremost among these pioneers of the Far Country was Robert Cavelier de La Salle, whom Frontenac had placed for a time in command of the fort at Cataraqui and who, in 1678, was commissioned by the governor to forge another link in the chain by the erection of a fort at Niagara. There he also built a small vessel, the first to ply the waters of the upper lakes, and in this La Salle and his lieutenants made their way to Michilimackinac. How he later journeyed to the Mississippi and down that stream to its mouth is a story to be told later on in these pages. It was and will remain a classic in the annals of exploration. And without Frontenac's vigorous support it could never have been accomplished. La Salle, when he performed his great feat of daring and endurance, was still a young man under forty, but his courage, firmness, and determination were not surpassed by any of his race. He had qualities that justified the confidence which the governor reposed in him.

But while La Salle was the most conspicuous among the pathfinders of this era, he was not the only one. Tonty, Du Lhut, La Foret, La Mothe-Cadillac, and others were all in Frontenac's favor, and all had his vigorous support in their work. Intrepid woodsmen, they covered every portion of the western wilderness, building forts and posts of trade, winning the friendship of the Indians, planting the arms of France in new soil and carrying the "Vexilla Regis" into parts unknown before. If Frontenac could have had his way, if the King had provided him with the funds, he would have run an iron chain of fortified posts all along the great water routes from Cataraqui to the Mississippi--and he had lieutenants who were able to carry out such an undertaking. But there were great obstacles in the way,--the lukewarmmess of the home government, the bitter opposition of the Jesuits, and the intrigues of his colleagues. Yet the governor was able to make a brave start, and before he had finished he had firmly laid the foundations of French trading supremacy in these western regions.

During the first three years after his coming to Canada, the governor had ruled alone. There was no intendant or bishop to hamper him, for both Talon and Laval had gone to France in 1672. But in 1675 Laval returned to the colony, and in the same year a new intendant, Jacques Duchesneau, was appointed. With this change in the situation at Quebec the friction began in earnest, for Frontenac's imperious temper did not make him a cheerful sharer of authority with any one else. If the intendant and the bishop had been men of conflicting ideas and dispositions, Frontenac might easily have held the balance of power; but they were men of kindred aims, and they readily combined against the governor. United in their opposition to him, they were together a fair match for Frontenac in ability and astuteness. It was not long, accordingly, before the whole colony was once more aligned in two factions. With the governor were the merchants, many of the seigneurs, and all the "coureurs-de-bois". Supporting the intendant and the bishop were many of the subordinate officials, all of the priests, and those of the tradesmen and habitants with whom the clerical influence was paramount.

The story of the quarrels which went on between these two factions during the years 1675-1680 is neither brief nor edifying. The root of it all lay in the governor's western policy, his encouragement of the forest traders or "coureurs-de-bois", and his connivance at the use of brandy in the Indian trade. There were unseemly squabbles about precedence at council meetings and at religious festivals, about trivialities of every sort; but the question of the brandy trade was at the bottom of them all. The bishop flayed the governor for letting this trade go on; the missionaries declared that it was proving the ruin of their efforts; and the intendant declared that Frontenac allowed it to continue because he was making a personal profit from the traffic. Charges and countercharges went home to France with every ship. The intendant wrote dispatches of wearisome length, rehearsing the governor's usurpations, insults, and incompetence. "Disorder," he told the minister, "rules everywhere. Universal confusion prevails; justice is openly perverted, and violence supported by authority determines everything." In language quite as unrestrained Frontenac recounted in detail the difficulties with which he had to contend owing to the intendant's obstinacy, intrigue, and dishonesty. The minister, appalled by the bewildering contradictions, could only lay the whole matter before the King, who determined to try first a courteous reprimand and to that end sent an autograph letter to each official. Both letters were alike in admonishing the governor and the intendant to work in harmony for the good of the colony, but each concluded with the significant warning: "Unless you harmonize better in the future than In the past, my only alternative will be to recall you both."

This intimation, coming straight from their royal master, was to each a rebuke which could not be misunderstood. But it did not accomplish, much, for the bitterness and jealousy existing between the two colonial officers was too strong to be overcome. The very next vessels took to France a new budget of complaints and recriminations from both. The King, as good as his word, issued prompt orders for their recall and the two officials left for home, but not on the same vessel, in the summer of 1682.

The question as to which of the two was the more at fault is hardly worth determining. The share of blame to be cast on each by the verdict of history should probably be about equal. Frontenac was by far the abler man, but he had the defects of his qualities. He could not brook the opposition of men less competent than he was, and when he was provoked his arrogance became intolerable. In broader domains of political action he would soon have out-generaled his adversary, but in these petty fields of neighborhood bickering Duchesneau, particularly with the occasional nudgings which he received from Laval, proved no unequal match. The fact remains that neither was able or willing to sacrifice personal animosities nor to display any spirit of cordial cooperation even at the royal command. The departure of both was regarded as a blessing by the majority of the colonists to whom the continued squabbles had become wearisome. Yet there was not lacking, in the minds of many among them, the conviction that if ever again New France should find itself in urgent straits, if ever there were critical need of an iron hand to rule within and to guard without, there would still be one man whom, so long as he lived, they could confidently ask to be sent out to them again. For the time being, however, Frontenac's official career seemed to be at an end. At sixty-two he could hardly hope to regain the royal favor by further service. He must have left the shores of New France with a heavy heart.

Frontenac's successor was La Barre, an old naval officer who had proved himself as capable at sea as he was now to show himself incompetent on land. He was the antithesis of his headstrong predecessor, weak in decision, without personal energy, without imagination, but likewise without any of Frontenac's skill in the art of making enemies. With La Barre came Meulles, an abler and more energetic colleague, who was to succeed Duchesneau as intendant. Both, reached Quebec in the autumn of 1682, and problems in plenty they found awaiting them. Shortly before their arrival a fire had swept through the settlement at Quebec, leaving scarcely a building on the lands below the cliff. To make matters worse, the Iroquois had again thrown themselves across the western trade route and had interrupted the coining of the colony's fur supply. As every one now recognized that the protection of this route was essential, La Barre decided that the Iroquois must be taught a lesson. Preparations in rather ostentatious fashion were therefore made for a punitive expedition, and in the summer of 1684 the governor with his troops was at Cataraqui. At this point, however, he began to question whether a parley might not be a better means of securing peace than the laying waste of Indian lands. Accordingly, it was arranged that a council with the Iroquois should be held across the lake from Cataraqui at a place which later took the name of La Famine from the fact that during the council the French supplies ran low and the troops had to be put on short rations. After negotiations which the cynical chronicler La Hontan has described with picturesque realism, an inglorious truce was patched up. The new governor was sadly deficient in his knowledge of the Indian temperament. He had given the Iroquois an impression that the French were too proud to fight. For their part the Iroquois offered him war or peace as he might choose, and La Barre assured them that he chose to live at peace. When the expedition returned to Quebec there was great disgust throughout the colony, the echoes of which were not without their effect at Versailles, and La Barre was forthwith recalled.

In his place the King sent out the Marquis de Denonville in 1685 with power to make war on the tribesmen or to respect the peace as he might find expedient upon his arrival. The new governor was an honest, well-intentioned soul, neither mentally incapable nor lacking in personal courage. He might have served his King most acceptably in many posts of routine officialdom, but he was not the man to handle the destinies of half a continent in critical years. His mission, to be sure, was no sinecure, for the Iroquois had grown bolder with the assurance of support from the English. Now that they were securing arms and ammunition from Albany it was probable that they would carry their raids right to the heart of New France. Denonville was therefore forced to the conclusion that he had better strike quickly. In making this decision he was right, for in dealing with savage races a thrust is almost always the best defense.

Armed preparations were consequently once more placed under way, and in the summer of 1687 a flotilla of canoes and batteaux bearing soldiers and supplies was again at Cataraqui. This time the expedition was stronger in numbers and better equipped than ever before. Down the lakes from Michilimackinac came a force of "coureurs-de-bois", among them seasoned veterans of the wilderness like Du Lhut, Tonty, La Foret, Morel de la Durantaye, and Nicholas Perrot, each worth a whole squad of soldiers when it came to fighting the Iroquois in their own forests. At the rendezvous across the lake from Cataraqui the French and their allies mustered nearly three thousand men. Denonville had none of his predecessor's bravado coupled with cowardice; his plans were carried forward with a precision worthy of Frontenac. Unlike Frontenac, however he had a scant appreciation of the skill with which the red man could get out of the way in the face of danger. By moving too slowly after he had set out overland towards the Seneca villages, he gave the enemy time to place themselves out of his reach. So he burned their villages and destroyed large areas of growing corn. After more than a week had been spent in laying waste the land, Denonville and his expedition retired slowly to Cataraqui. Leaving part of his force there, the governor went westward to Niagara, where he rebuilt in more substantial fashion La Salle's old fort at that point and placed it in charge of a garrison. The "coureurs-de-bois" then continued on their way to Michilimackinac while Denonville returned to Montreal.

The expedition of 1687 had not been a fiasco like that of 1685, but neither was it in any real way a success. It angered the whole Iroquois confederacy without, having sufficiently impressed the Indians with the punitive power of the French. Denonville had stirred up the nest without destroying the hornets. It was all too soon the Indians' turn to show what they could do as ravagers of unprotected villages; within a year after the French expedition had returned, the Iroquois bands were raiding the territory of the French to the very outskirts of Montreal itself. The route to the west was barred; the fort at Niagara had to be abandoned; Cataraqui was cut off from succor and ultimately had to be destroyed by its garrison; not a single canoe-load of furs came down from the lakes during the entire summer. The merchants were facing ruin, and the whole colony was beginning to tremble for its very existence. The seven years since Frontenac left the land had indeed been a lurid interval.

It was at this juncture that tidings of the colony's dire distress were hurried to the King, and the Grand Monarch moved with rare good sense. He promptly sent for that grim old veteran whom he had recalled in anger seven years before. In all the realm Frontenac was the one man who could be depended upon to restore the prestige of France along the great trade routes.

The Great Onontio, as Frontenac was known to the Indians, reached the St. Lawrence in the late autumn of 1689, just as the colony was about to pass through its darkest hours. Quebec greeted him as a "Redemptor Patriae"; its people, in the words of La Hontan, were as Jews welcoming the Messiah. Nor was their enthusiasm without good cause, for in a few years Frontenac demonstrated his ability to put the colony on its feet once more. He settled its internal broils, opened the channels of trade, restored the forts, repulsed the English, and brought the Iroquois to terms.

Now that his mission had been achieved and he was no longer as robust as of old, the Iron Governor asked the minister to keep him in mind for some suitable sinecure in France if the opportunity came. This the minister readily promised, but the promise was still unfulfilled when Frontenac was stricken with his last illness. On November 28, 1698, the greatest of the Onontios, or governors, passed away. "Devoted to the service of his king," says his eulogist, "more busied with duty than with gain; inviolable in his fidelity to his friends, he was as vigorous a supporter as he was an untiring foe." Had his official career closed with his recall in 1682, Frontenac would have ranked as one of the singular misfits of the old French colonial system. But the brilliant successes of his second term made men forget the earlier days of petulance and petty bickerings. In the sharp contrasts of his nature Frontenac was an unusual man, combining many good and great qualities with personal shortcomings that were equally pronounced. In the civil history of New France he challenges attention as the most remarkable figure.

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